How to Get the Internship of Your Dreams

What is the secret to getting the best internships? Unfortunately there is no single, easy answer. Landing the internship of your dreams involves a combination of factors, some of which are completely out of your control. Despite this, there are a number of ways for you to prepare to land an awesome internship with the group, corporation, organization, or industry you want. As a serial intern who is on her fourth internship, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes me a good candidate for the internships I am aiming for. I can think of five things that I believe set me apart.

5 Tips to Become a Stronger Intern Applicant

1. Develop the Right Mindset

One of the biggest differences I notice between myself and other students is how we view internships. For most people, internships are something you're supposed to do in college to help you get a job when you get out. They’re mostly unpaid and are a lot of work to get.

I prefer to think of internships as special jobs that are available only to college students (although I recognize some internships are available to anyone). An internship represents a chance to test out future careers as well as learn valuable skills that minimum-wage jobs often do not offer. They are a place to learn from some of the top professionals in their field all without the risk of a bad grade. They also are only available for a limited time. Because of these reasons, I have chosen to actively replace times where I would be working a minimum-wage job with these resume-building types of experiences.

Another mindset flaw that plagues most students is that "their college isn’t prestigious enough to land them that internship". I attend a small private college with limited name recognition, yet I managed to obtain an internship at the White House. I do not believe that most organizations judge strictly on which college you come from.

If you're still apprehensive, that means you need to work a little harder and be different and stand out in a crowd of students coming from schools like yours. I have made a conscious effort to never let my background limit what opportunities I apply for.

2. Start Early and Be Prepared

One of the biggest factors that deter college students applying to internships is lack of preparation. Students get caught up in the current moment and the next deadline that personal-development projects with little instant gratification get pushed to the side. Simple excuses like "I'll do it next week", or "summer is months away" leaves students scrambling during the last weeks of school only to realize that they have missed crucial deadlines.

I began my internship process by creating a separate calendar and a folder in my web browser dedicated only to internships. This way, every time I found an internship I was interested in, I would save it in both places with their deadlines for easy access.

I find myself searching extensively for internships (or jobs) every couple of months since there are internships offered every semester. If I am serious about applying, it goes on my calendar and is broken into baby steps with specific deadlines.

If I find myself on a website often enough, I will check to see if they have any positions I am interested in. This keeps me consistently thinking about internships and I am immediately acting towards them.

Summer Internship Program Closing Celebration and Final Presentations. by Jay Baker at Annapolis, MD.
Summer Internship Program Closing Celebration and Final Presentations. by Jay Baker at Annapolis, MD.

3. Be Strategic in Your Applications

Another challenge faced by students when they’re looking into internships is they don’t know what they want to do or where they should apply. I get it, I’ve been there. But remember that the reasons internships exist is for students to try out a career without too much commitment. Just try something even if you're not sure about it! Even if you end up not enjoying the internship, you will still learn something from it.

As a political science major, I was unsure where I fit. Should I work with not-for-profit, in the public sector, or private advocacy? I searched for internships in all three. I found that I gravitated towards the public sector as those internships descriptions fit me, my values, and my profile best.

If I had hated working in the public sector, my next few internships would have been somewhere different. However, I loved the work I was doing at the White House so I sought an internship in the NY State Senate and returned for a second semester. Just because I didn't intern at a not-for-profit or an advocacy firm doesn’t mean I may never work for one, but I'll have to be more conscious of my trial period when I graduate from my relatively flexible years of college.

4. Be Honest

When you’re filling out an application be completely honest and quirky! I know this is advice often given concerning applications and internships, I just don’t think people follow it.

When I was filling out my White House Internship application, I was a little unsure of how to answer to the question "Where did you hear about this internship?". I read through the traditional options and had to click "other" because my story is different.

I found out about the internship while watching an episode of West Wing where Toby gets mad at his interns for not being capable of filling Sam’s shoes. I realized then that the White House may have interns and if they did, I wanted to be one.

I paused the show, searched for White House Internships and was thrilled to learn that their internship position fit me perfectly. I chose to write a shorter version of that story in the "other" box and felt extremely self-conscious about it. Looking back, I am happy I did. My honestly potentially helped me stand out among other applicants.

I share this story to show how being honest can set you apart. We all have unique experiences and our journeys take us down interesting paths. Bringing these small aspects of yourself to an application gives the organization a unique perspective into who you are, how you live, what makes you different from other people. Not only do these stories personify you from words on a screen, they also expose pieces of you to help the organization decide if you’re a good fit for them.

5. Be Different

Following a similar thread, I encourage you to think outside of the college box. College is generally eight semesters of your life where you have limited financial and social responsibility leaving you with the freedom to pursue interests and passions. I decided to fill my time with as many learning experiences as I could even if that meant that I may not graduate with the class I started with (although I still will be able to). If you choose, you can break out of the traditional college mold to truly take advantage of all of the internship, job, and travel opportunities you have as a college student.  Feel free to break up your college experience any way you’d like to maximize your personal growth and educational development.

When applying and competing for an internship, be yourself throughout the entire process. Even though it is a nerve-racking, time-consuming process, the skills and ideas you gain from an internship are well worth it. As you approach this process, take time to think about who you are, where you’d like to be in a few years, and work actively to achieve that.

Read the next article in the series to get help analyzing the different types of internships and which one is best for you!

     Photo by J1986boston24 (Own work) under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

     Photo by Jay Baker under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr